Thursday, April 15, 2010

helen weaver "the awakener: a memoir of kerouac and the fifties" book review

Helen Weaver’s “The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac in the Fifties” is the newest addition to the growing cannon of “women and the beat generation” literature. Weaver’s far ranging memoir covers much more than the brief, but intense, two month relationship she had with Jack Kerouac in the late fifties (which ended when she unceremoniously dumped him)! When Weaver and Jack dated, publication of “On the Road” was less than a year in the future. By the time “On the Road” was published - and Kerouac became an overnight sensation - Jack and Helen were no more. Kerouac had moved in with Joyce Glassman (to be Johnson).

Glassman became Weaver’s dreaded rival - or so it seemed in those days. Joyce Johnson’s own book, “Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir,” a minor classic in its own right, continued the look at Jack’s love life immediately following his relationship with Helen Weaver. Johnson’s “Minor Characters” was followed on the heels of the granddaddy (grand mommy?) of the genre, Carolyn Cassady’s “Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neil” (which was made into a movie of the same name, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and John Heard as Jack). Cassidy revisited her look back with “Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac & Ginsberg” a decade later.

Weaver’s insightful book is deserves to be read right alongside Johnson and Cassady’s lives and times with Jack Kerouac. There are others in this genre - notable by Kerouac’s two ex-wives: Joan Haverty’s “Nobody’s Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats,” and “You’ll be Okay” by Edie Kerouac Parker (his first wife). Except for Edie Parker’s book, I’ve read these all those books (and Johnson’s collected letters w/Kerouac) with intense fascination. To a woman, they each described the same self-centered character - who looking back through today’s politically correct lens, was basically an unmitigated heel in his relationships with women.

That said, Kerouac was decidedly a product of his times. Weaver’s take was in part sympathetic, but completely realistic. She had a strong sense of herself, character if you will - perhaps the strongest of the long line of women that populated Kerouac’s life. Weaver quickly tired of his drunken lifestyle. She perceptively grasped that his path would become increasingly darker, increasingly tragic, because of his growing dependency on alcohol. Weaver summoned up the courage - perhaps urged on by her psychoanalyst (which is how Kerouac wrote about it in “Desolation Angels”) - to kick him out of her apartment (and, as it turned out, her life).

In Weaver’s words: “I asked Jack to leave not because my analyst told me to and not because of some proto-feminist declaration of independence on my part. I rejected him for the same reason America rejected him: he woke us up in the middle of the night in the long dream of the fifties. He interfered with our sleep." The book’s title is a subtle double entendre - he repeatedly stumbled in during the middle the night and kept her from getting sleep (and it made getting up for work increasingly untenable)! But Kerouac, and his growing connection with Buddhism, also awoke her spiritual consciousness - and, over the years, gave her a deeper appreciation of life!

Weaver’s memoir relates much more than her brief time with Kerouac. Although, true to form, she was one of the rare characters in his life that refused to listen to his long and rambling - and drunken - late night telephone calls during the late 1960's. By that time she had already been involved with Lenny Bruce - she and her friend (the “other” Helen) drafted, and collected signatures for, a petition that defended Bruce’s free speech rights when the Manhattan District Attorney prosecuted (persecuted) him on obscenity charges. Bruce’s tragic death from a heroin overdose preceded Jack’s 1969 ugly death from alcoholism.

In the early 1970's Weaver abandoned New York City in favor of Woodstock. She had an exceptional career as a translator - and, simultaneously, became a practicing astrologer! If there is one weakness to her otherwise wonderful book, it’s the (for me) undecipherable appendix of astrological charts for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and herself! To each, her own - but my consciousness hasn’t expanded enough to encompass (or embrace) astrology! That said, “The Awakener” is a must read not just for Kerouac lovers, but Beat Generation fans of all stripes!

1 comment:

Tessa said...

I did not find this book to be a great read. Memoirs written 50 years after the fact are always suspect for me. The Kerouac part, which was pretty small was really nothing new. Interesting how the same events told by different people vary....timelines and mis-attributed quotes. Who to believe? Personally, I have to go with Jack, his memory was legendary and letters, journals and books written within years of events not 5 decades.